Back to Main Entry

Reviews of Saudi Kingdom

“In this forcefully argued book, Ali al Shihabi portrays the monarchy’s potential downfall as an unmitigated disaster that would lead to the collapse of the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and that would create a void that could be filled only by jihadists or Iran. He is highly critical of the sprawling network of princes and Wahhabi clergy on the state dole, and he argues that Islamism is mostly a vessel for class antagonism. He calls for the state to embrace some reforms—budget transparency, a sharp reduction in the size of royal patronage networks, and fewer restrictions on debate—and he hopes that King Salman will lead the way. Shihabi sees little reason to believe that the nuclear deal that world powers reached with Iran last year will change the Islamic Republic’s disruptive behavior in the Middle East, and he calls for the GCC to admit Yemen, with its 25 million people, which would nearly double the council’s population and make the GCC a more credible counterweight to Iran.”—Foreign Affairs

“The author of this work is a Saudi, which gives hopes of insights not directly available to the foreign observer. These hopes are reinforced by a long and laudatory preface by Professor Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton.

Ali al Shihabi is no member of an opposition. On the contrary he gives credit to Al Saud (the House of Saud) for building, over the relatively brief life of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a State that has brought the benefits of stability, infrastructure and basic services to the majority of its people. He points out that in 1932 the Kingdom had no inherited structure of governance, other than a handful of bureaucrats in the Hejaz, on which to build. Fairly enough, he invites the reader to compare the value delivered to the Saudi citizen with that offered to the inhabitants of a peer group consisting of other oil-rich States such as Algeria, Libya and Iraq. Saudis do not, he observes tellingly, emigrate.

The strapline to the title of the book indicates where the author wants us to look for threats to the Kingdom. He states rather than argues the “deadly” threat represented by an ambitious Iran that “looks covetously” across the Gulf at the oil-rich emirates ruled by Sunni emirs backed by Al Saud. He claims that Iran’s elites are driven by an intense desire to spread their ideology of vali-e faqih: the role of Iran’s supreme leader is to be the leader” noTonly of Shia Islanfbut Df*alr* of Islarrn Herasserts. .that the™, record of the history of the Islamic Republic shows that, rather than using soft power, Iran has sought to increase its influence by military means, citing Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and most recently the Yemen. Saudi Arabia, as the most significant obstacle to Iran’s achieving its goal, is in the firing line.

Though it is not mentioned in the strapline, Shihabi devotes a chapter to the Yemen as representing a “fundamental political and military danger” to Saudi Arabia, pointing to potential waves of desperate refugees seeking to climb the rich neighbour’s wall.

Shihabi has an interesting view on the jihadi challenge to Al Saud. He sets the scene by describing how the historic partnership between the ruling family and the Wahhabi establishment was forged, properly noting that

at times the objectives of the two have not been identical, for example in facing modern technologies. He then suggests that in the 1990s an increasingly confident family sought to lessen the ulema’s reactionary interference by replacing a retiring generation of influential clerics with men of lesser stature, subservient to Al Saud in such matters as King Fahd’s decision to invite the “infidel” USA to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This led to a rift in the Saudi community, and one strand “twisted” Wahhabi ideology to justify disobedience to the rulers. Shihabi contends that Al Saud have failed to be creative in countering this dangerous trend, falling back on reliance on Wahhabi elders; thus the Wahhabi pillar of the Saudi State has been shaken. Shihabi does not so much as mention Saudi Arabia’s own encouragement of jihad in Afghanistan: Afghanistan is cited only to point to the fate of its ruling family when it tried to be too progressive in a conservative Muslim society.

The outsider might think that a greater challenge to Saudi Arabia than perceived threats from Iran was what Shihabi vividly describes as the country’s angry youth – and two-thirds of the population are under the age of 29. The “suffocatingly oppressive social environment” subjects them to “insane” levels of frustration, sexual and otherwise. The author brings out widespread resentment at the entitlements of the princely class, numbering something over 10,000 and augmented by certain favoured families, who are given an income, grants of land and other privileges, and are effectively above the law. Against this background, Shihabi notes that Saudis have played a prominent role in jihadi groups outside the Kingdom, and there is a clear danger of blowback.

In suggesting the way ahead, the author asserts that the country is too fragile to insert public participation into its governance. The only course is reform of the existing institutions, for example a reduction in the size of the royal family, strengthening the independence of the judiciary, importing transparency into the budget, granting greater freedom of expression. Even to state this programme is to demonstrate the delicacy of the task facing the Saudi leadership. Shihabi does not guarantee it would succeed, but it “has the highest chance of success”. One might add that the fall of the monarchical regimes of the Gulf has been regularly forecast since the late 1960s and that so far the inherent strengths of the regimes, allied to the skills of the rulers, have proved up to the test.”–Asian Affairs